How many times have you seen kids playing at being a superhero, a pirate, or a ninja? Playing is work for children. It’s their job. I saw it every day as a preschool teacher and as a stay-at-home father of three. By playing, a child is experimenting and exploring the world.
Playing is the best education for a child. Yet, when “learning” or class time starts, what do we ask kids to do? Sit still and be quiet. At least, that’s what I was doing. Quickly, though, I saw that some kids had a different idea about how a book should be read. One little boy, Gunnar, would jump up at exciting parts. He’d let out a hoot along with cowboys in one story. He’d throw his fist in the air triumphantly as we read about superheroes in another.
He was such a distraction... to me. I’d stop and get him resituated before I continued. Once recess came around, though, Gunnar was right back in one of our stories. He had become a pirate now, and had enlisted his classmates for a voyage across the sea in search of treasure.
Obviously, the books we’d read had engaged him. The stories had stimulated his imagination and inspired possibilities. Each time I’d asked my students or my own kids to sit still and be quiet, I was asking them to halt the imaginative processes sparked by words and pictures. I took for granted how children learn. By separating playtime from learning, I didn’t appreciate how interconnected these activities were.
Experiencing a story with a child goes beyond the pages of the book. While reenacting a story, I see kids experiment with newfound vocabulary through play. That connection between written and spoken language brings a child to a new level of literacy and language skills.
Kids want to explore their physical abilities in play. Who can run the fastest? Who can tiptoe the quietest? According to many researchers, even a little ninja mischief can be healthy. Children will naturally take on different roles as they play. It is important for kids to experience conflict and the cause-and-effect relationship of their actions. In their make-believe play, they learn to self-regulate while developing a basic understanding of empathy for others. While at play, children express both positive and negative feelings and become problem-solvers. Along this progression, kids then learn how to work together, to collaborate as a team.
As a children’s book writer, I’ve taken to heart the lessons learned as a parent and educator. In writing Ninja, Ninja, Never Stop! I wanted to encourage the same reaction I saw in young Gunnar during story time. I want kids to jump up and play-act the story. What kid doesn’t want to be as stealthy as a ninja? I intentionally wrote the text almost as commands, begging young readers to hide, sneak, and crawl; to hop, drop, and even chop! When it comes to playing, kids should never, never stop.